(VATICAN CITY) It’s 2013, and it’s 6:15 in the morning in Rome, but the scene puts me right back to the 2011 beatification of John Paul II. Transportation services stop well short of their destinations, unable to compete with the foot traffic streaming toward St. Peter’s Square. The sun — absent the last few days in wind, chill, and rain — glints down the slightly damp basalt-cobblestone streets, and it’s more cool than chilly. Cafes and trattorie that would never open this early now rush to put out their billboards, advertising take-away breakfasts. I’m starving, but I don’t dare stop; I may not make it through the crowds that have already assembled, even with my press pass.
For me, at least, that’s the one big difference between the 2011 beatification and now. I couldn’t get within a quarter-mile of St. Peter’s Square in 2011, but now the press pass gets me through five or six security barriers set up around the piazza. Tens of thousands — probably more than 100,000 — have already turned out three hours before the Inauguration Mass of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome that will officially install Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis, a ceremony that has drawn 132 national delegations at last count and representatives from most Christian ecclesial communities and other major religions.
The security barriers are holding when I take this picture of the crowd waiting at this end of Via Conciliazione, but that doesn’t last long:
No sooner do I put my camera back in the bag than the cordon ruptures, and a small group of pilgrims run for the Carlo Magno colonnade that emerges from the left side of the basilica. A police officer stops me as a swarm of security personnel rushes to plug the gap, one yelling in English to the crowd, “Push back! Push back!” While I wonder for a moment why he used English instead of Italian, the policeman allows me to proceed up the same pathway as the lucky few who got away.
I’m not more than 30 meters away when I hear shouting behind me, and suddenly I’m in the middle of a Pamplona run as a major jailbreak rushes past me … led in part by nuns. I only have time to whip out my smartphone to grab a few images:
By this time, I’m close to the media center, so I decide to step out of the way of the stampede, which runs square into another security barrier. When I see a break in the rush, I move across the path quickly to a security officer, who allows me through an opening in the barrier that goes in the opposite way of the pilgrims, onto Via Sant’Uffizio and the media center. By this time it’s 6:40, the end of a 25-minute trek across the square that normally takes about five minutes to complete. And the Mass is still almost three hours away.
As a journalist with temporary accreditation, I have two options for covering the Mass. The first is identical to Sunday’s coverage of the Angelus — standing on the Carlo Magno braccio, four stories or so up above the square, only this time for four or five hours. The other is to watch it from the media center. Given that I don’t have the kind of high-power lenses that would make ground shots look worthwhile, and that my feet and legs are already quite sore from the previous ten days of walking with 40 pounds of equipment on my back, I opt for the media center. We’ll get a much better view of the Mass from here, and I can actually write during the morning. And given the size and passion of the crowds in the square, it will probably be the only oasis of calm in the area until mid-afternoon.
The Pope arrived right on time at 8:50 in the morning, not in the bullet-proof Popemobile but in the open Jeep. (How long will it take after 1981 to not pray for the Pope’s safety while riding in the open? Longer than 32 years, unfortunately.) The Vatican arranged the barriers so that Francis could drive through as much of the crowd as possible. At one point, the pontiff climbed down to kiss and bless a disabled elderly man cradled by a younger man, and spent a couple of minutes conversing with the two. At another point, he stopped to kiss children held aloft by their parents.
Interestingly, the square did not fill up this morning as the Pope wended his way through the barriers. This is not a civil holiday for Rome, and the mid-week Mass along with the security and transportation restrictions may have convinced some Romans to avoid the event. The Sunday Angelus appears to have been the popular event of the pontificate’s launch, which drew somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 people by various estimates. In contrast to Sunday, the Via Conciliazione did not fill up immediately, and the back sections of the square still had some room for any late-arriving pilgrims. By the end of the service, though, the sections had completely filled in, and the crowd stretched nearly to the end of the Via Conciliazione.
After vesting in St. Peter’s Basilica, the mass started at 9:40 local time. Francis’ homily emphasized the centrality of service to the poor in the mission of the Catholic Church, according to the embargoed version of his prepared remarks.
Francis of Assisi demonstrated respect and love for all of God’s creation, “respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live,” but more to the point, “protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.” Therefore, Francis implored “all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political, and social life” to be “protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature.”
Today is the Feast Day of St. Joseph, and the readings reflect his role in the Holy Family. The Pope elaborated on the lessons of St. Joseph, exhorting the audience to “protect Jesus and Mary” as Joseph did, and to “hope against hope” to believe and serve. Even his own power as pontiff, Francis explained, is ordered to service. “Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love,” Francis said, ” are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service … [The Pope] must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked St. Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important[.]” Francis emphasized the the need for service in his mission: “Only those who serve with love are able to protect!”
The Mass ended well ahead of the predicted two-hour running time, a reflection of the simplicity demanded by Francis in the ceremony of the inauguration. Much of the crowd remained well after the pontiff returned to St. Peter’s Basilica to remove his vestments and prepare to greet the dignitaries in a lengthy receiving line that began to form almost immediately. Others meandered back down Via Conciliazione and other exits, certainly back through Piazza di Resorgimento, the path I had taken to arrive, the bells of St. Peter’s pealing behind them as they left. Once free of his ceremonial vestments, Francis walked with new energy to the altar of St. Peter and began to receive his guests, starting with Argentina president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
The papal transition has now been completed.
Update: Joe Biden managed to keep his soul, apparently. I saw him momentarily in a camera pan of the dignitaries.
Update II: According to Italian news network Rai, the Vatican estimates that 200,000 people attended the Mass.